Michael Ignatieff used money from his office budget to have a stone wall rebuilt at his family estate in the south of France. Stephen Harper charged hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of musty hockey memorabilia to his expense account. And Jack Layton? Let’s just say Canadians would be shocked at how much it is costing them to keep his moustache trimmed and waxed.
Well, we don’t know for a fact that all of this is true. But at the same time, we don’t know that it isn’t true. And given the parliamentary expense scandal in Britain last year along with the one currently brewing in Nova Scotia, and given what we do know about secret accounts and their relationship to human nature, a healthy serving of cynicism is probably warranted. Which is why it is completely bizarre that the Board of Internal Economy, the body that is responsible for the finances and administration of the Canadian House of Commons, last week refused a request from Auditor General Sheila Fraser to conduct the first “performance audit” of MPs’ expenses in almost 20 years.
Actually, it is not just the MPs’ expenses that are secret, but the board’s deliberations as well. So not only did it turn down the AG’s request to look at its books, but the board’s spokespeople also declined to speak to the press or to explain to Canadians precisely why they didn’t see the need to make their expenses public. As a result, Canadians were treated to the curious sight of watching a number of highly visible MPs, most of whom have never met a microphone they didn’t want to kiss, scurrying from reporters like cockroaches caught under a heat lamp.
Yet Ottawa abhors a consensus, especially a secret one, and soon enough a handful of rogue parliamentarians stepped forward to explain why Sheila Fraser ought to mind her own business. NDP MP Joe Comartin told the Hill Times the Commons already had performance audits. They are called elections, and if the public didn’t like it they were welcome to vote accordingly. Liberal MP Paul Szabo said that he would happily discuss his expenses with any constituent who was interested, but felt inclined to add, “They’re not interested.”
It is hard to understand just why MPs are being so stubborn about this. The most charitable interpretation of what our parliamentarians are up to is that they are standing on principle. A less generous view: Canadians have been hearing a lot lately about parliamentary supremacy and the ancient privileges of the Commons, as the opposition has asserted its right to see the Afghan detainees documents. It may just be that, having got its first taste of real power in decades, Parliament has decided to jealously protect its privileges, including the one that gives our MPs the collective right to regulate their internal affairs and keep their own accounts.
This, of course, would be a serious strategic mistake. The whole point of parliamentary privilege is that it carves out the special rights MPs must have, because without them they could not discharge their duties in holding the government to account. It is hard to see how letting the auditor general take a look at their expenses infringes on that essential function. It is massively hypocritical of MPs to insist on keeping their own documents out of the public eye, after having spent most of the past six months using that very same parliamentary privilege to demand greater access to someone else’s. What a foolish and needless sacrifice of the public respect and goodwill they have earned by standing up to the government.
Unless, of course, there’s something else going on. The only remaining explanation is they really do have something to hide. There’s probably nothing much to match, for glorious tack, the publicly funded moat-cleanings that marked the British scandal, and one can only hope our MPs have never stooped to treating a porn habit as a line item on their office budget. But the truth may be something far more Canadian, and in many ways far more outrageous—at least if the other excuse served up by Szabo is remotely accurate.
As Szabo explained to one news agency, parliamentarians are subject to a large number of lawsuits for offences such as wrongful dismissal and sexual harassment. He said that a big chunk of the board’s budget goes to paying legal fees, and that if the facts of these suits were ever made public, careers could be ruined.
Even by the usual empty-headed standards we’ve grown used to in our elected representatives, this is a fantastically brainless excuse. Either MPs are routinely exploiting their staff and then paying them off when they complain, or they are being routinely shaken down by the hordes of grifters and opportunists who staff Parliament Hill. In either case, it is scandalous that the public would be kept unaware of this. Not to mention the fact that making it public would go a long way to solving the problem, since it is precisely the hush-hush nature of the process that makes the scandal possible.
Our members of Parliament have to know that the public is not with them on this. A poll conducted earlier this month by Leger Marketing and released last week suggests that 88 per cent of Canadians wanted those expense accounts made public. Szabo is dead wrong—Canadians are very interested in what MPs are doing with the $540 million they spend on themselves each year.
And that’s the funny thing about privileges. Unlike rights, which are unalienable, privileges have a way of getting taken away when they are abused.